Are We Over Connected to Electronic Technology?

When I was growing up personal technology did not exist. I can remember when the voice mail system in my house was me. The concept of a personal portable phone did not exist. Our phones were rotary dial and there was only one in our house in a central location. My dad conducted much of his business on the phone so we were taught that it was for business only. We were not allowed to “chat” because he might miss a call. (For those younger readers, there was no call-waiting either.) We were taught this mantra: “Be polite, be professional, be quick, be done.” When the phone would ring, it was essential that someone would answer it. My dad did not always want to do it, so I was trained to answer and say that my father was unavailable, then take message. (Often this was a lie, even though I was taught not to lie unless my parents told me to; you know the old “do what I say, not what I do” idea.) So, my brother and I learned to interrupt whatever we were doing in order to answer the phone, dinner, television, sleep, it did not matter what we were engaged in. It was required that we answer the phone, take the message, tell the “story” and hang up.
Now things are different. Everyone I know has a cell phone. They are personally and permanently connected to the world with technology that intrudes 24/7. People have actually discussed whether or not we have a new addiction, being “in touch.” The argument is that it makes us more efficient, more competent, and safer. We can work from the car, the home, and the beach. We can be available for emergencies, even when we are camping in the woods or at our child’s ball game. We can get e-mails, phone calls, text messages, and even surf the web on our phones in order to get answers immediately and stay current. We update our Facebook accounts and track our friends on twitter whenever and wherever we are. I was in a restaurant the other day and saw a family of four having dinner “together.” All four of them were texting, emailing, or talking on their phones. They even ate while using their respective devices. They did not talk to each other or attend to their consumption. They were getting off on their electronic release, feeding their electronic addiction, as well as their stomachs.
A couple of years ago, we had a group of friends over to watch the Superbowl. They all brought their teen-aged boys. We were sitting in front of the TV watching when we realized that all the boys had their phones out and were texting each other instead of talking. We all laughed at how the world had changed. Now we worry that our children have learned to text, sext, and exchange in sharing pornography on their phones. Recently, I was asked to consult at a school that discovered middle school students were putting porn on their iPods and showing it to each other. Before I finished the consultations with the teachers and administrators about this practice, it “evolved” into sexting issues on the students’ cell phones. We are all aware technology is growing faster than we can identify and resolve our concerns.
Kids, as well as, parents seem to feel “entitled” to have their access to the web and the cell systems. Even if they are not required to do it for work or school, they “need” to do it in order to have a life. Many people are concerned about the level of what is termed by communication professionals as “mediated” communications. That means that the communication is not direct and face to face, it is transitioned through some electronic media device. This can include computers, phones, and online game systems. I worry that our children are not developing the ability to say to someone that hurts their feelings, “I am hurt”, or “I am angry” or “we have a problem, let’s work it out.” Now my child can go on Twitter and/or Facebook or text his friends and be rude or aggressive about the friend with whom he is upset. He can smear his reputation and make fun of him without directly seeing the effect. If he knows their account passwords, he can go online pretend to be them, wreak havoc with his other friendships and do things which will hurt them and damage their reputation, without any direct accountability for his actions. It is a dangerous world we have created for them!
Several years ago, I had a client who was a busy executive. I saw him weekly. He made it clear that he was wealthy, powerful, and important. When I told him I was going on vacation in Europe and would be out of touch, he asked for a way to get a hold me when he wanted or needed me; a phone number, an email account, an itinerary, etc.. I made it clear to him I am on vacation and I will not be checking any of those things. He was very distressed and said, “I don’t think I like that.” He fully expected me to make myself available to him at any time he thought he needed me, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I believe that is becoming more and more common for more and more people. As a consultant, I am expected to be on call when the client needs me or wants me. As a therapist, I am expected to be available anytime my client has a suicidal crisis or an emotional emergency. As a parent, I need to be able to track my child on my cell phone so I know if he is staying in the driving zone I permit him and answer any time he beckons. My friends want to be able to send me a joke or witticism, or ask me to walk their dog because they will be late coming home from work. Everyone expects everyone to be “online” and “in contact” all the time, simply because the technology exists.
The question becomes who are we outside of our technology? Are we “required” to be available all the time? What happens to us if we fall offline for awhile? As a therapist, I can tell you that many of my clients who are coming to therapy for stress-management issues have to find an answer to these questions as a part of their therapy. Can you sit through dinner and allow the phone to ring and let it go to voicemail? Do you have a rule that says no one, parents included, can be on the phone or texting during dinner? When you go out to dinner with friends, do you check text messages or take calls? Are your children trained not to call unless it is an emergency? One time my son called while I was out to dinner with friends and wanted to know where his clean socks were. I doubt that will happen again! How much stress do you feel because of the need or desire to be connected to the world at all times?
Do you take your computer on vacation for work or play? Today’s new economy seems to be more and more focused on “consultants” so that companies do not have to provide offices and benefits to their employees. One of the cost-benefit-ratio assessments for both the companies and consultants, is the flexibility both in time management, resource allocation, and immediacy of access. These are economic realities for the new era. But what are the emotional and personal realities which arise from this? How do we maintain our sense of an isolated individuality if we are always in contact? How do we have time for ourselves to be quiet, meditate, reflect, or play if we are always at work? Can we be selectively connected? What will our boss say, or our spouses, extended families, or others who need us? Will we feel the anxiety of being on the outside of the information loop if we choose to disconnect for a period of time? There may be consequences that we will not like which others can impose. But there will also be consequences that we impose on ourselves. Worry, stress, a sense of isolation, and a need to feed our addictions all will intrude on our sense of self and on our sense of well being.
As a clinician and a consultant, I work on helping my clients answer these questions. As a parent, I work on helping my child develop the ability to break away from constant connectivity. I want him to anticipate how he will feel, what his friends may say, and give him permission to take care of himself without feeding their expectations. I hope that through the “parenting” of my child, I can help myself with the same issues. Hey, maybe I can find an answer on the web. Let me get my phone and check, I will be back with you in a moment. Go ahead and set your computer or phone to notify you when I am back. Perhaps I should just write about it on Twitter….. But, then I need to get a Twitter account, what about Facebook, would that work? I need to check to see which social media everyone is using now so that I can follow the herd. Or do I????

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7 Responses to Are We Over Connected to Electronic Technology?

  1. Brett Newcomb says:

    When you decide which way you lean on this topic let me know. I would be happy to discuss it with you.

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